Sea Turtle Research Expedition Maldives

Olive Ridley Project’s second sea turtle research expedition to Haa Alif Atoll was another great success. Three volunteers joined the ORP team and expedition leader Nina Rothe for the month long adventure. Here is Nina’s update from the field.

Last Updated: January 27, 2019

Sea Turtle Research Expedition – An Adventure

Hawksbill turtle on the reef in Haa Alif Atoll Maldives
Hawksbill turtle on the reef in Haa Alif Atoll

Olive Ridley Project’s second sea turtle research expedition to Haa Alif Atoll was a great success. Three volunteers joined the ORP team and expedition leader Nina Rothe for the month long adventure. Here is Nina’s update from the field.

From Marine Biologist to Expedition Leader

I had been a marine biologist in the Maldives for quite some time and therefore knew of the work of the Olive Ridley Project. The opportunity to join them as an expedition leader came at the perfect time and sounded amazing. This would be my first time to the remote north of the Maldives an opportunity to survey an area that had not been explored by many before was exciting.

The aim of the sea turtle research expedition was to collect data on the sea turtle populations in Haa Alif Atoll. Not much is known about the turtles in this atoll, so we were planning to survey the reefs and beaches, mainly to gather photo identification data to help us understand the sea turtle population dynamics of the area.

Kelaa Island

Volunteers exploring Kelaa beach
A stroll on Kelaa beach

Together with Shameel, project coordinator at the Olive Ridley Project, I arrived at Kelaa a few days earlier than the volunteers to prepare for the expedition and make sure everything was ready to go. We had coffee at one of the little cafes with members of the local NGO IDEAS (Island Development and Environmental Awareness Society), who were ORP’s local partners in Kelaa. As our partners for the expedition, IDEAS helped us arrange everything necessary and prepare for educational sessions at the island school.

In my opinion, Kelaa is one of the Maldives’ most beautiful islands. Staying on a local island gives you the opportunity to experience the real Maldives. Walking along the amazing white sandy beach on the western side of the Island easily takes 30 minutes. Or, if you feel like a different kind of scenery, you can get lost in the jungle-like vegetation.

Arrival of the Volunteers

Olive Ridley Project Sea turtle research expedition team
The sea turtle research expedition volunteers with the boat crew and expedition leader, Nina

Our three volunteers for the sea turtle research expedition, Laura, Shawn and Mark, arrived at Hanimadhoo airport on a sunny afternoon where Shameel and I picked them up. The 30-minute boat ride to Kelaa, provided a brief introduction to the surrounding islands and reefs, the future survey sites.

At Kelaa, everyone was greeted by the manager of Summer Home Kelaa, the guesthouse we’d all be staying in and were offered a ‘Kurumba’ (young coconut) as a welcome drink. Now our team was complete.

The First Days

Sea turtle research expedition survey in progress
Surveying in progress

After everyone had settled in, Shameel and I did a little bit of training with Laura, Shawn and Mark. Shameel explained the work of the Olive Ridley Project in more detail and I gave information on turtle biology, the aim of the expedition and the survey methods. We explained what we’d be doing during the next few days and answered questions. Then it was time for our first day out on the water!


hawksbill turtle Haa Alif Atoll Maldives
One of the hawksbill turtles encountered in Haa Alif Atoll

The most beautiful Maldivian dhoni took us out on the water. Our captain Ahmed and crew Naffaaz were really helpful and made sure we were always safe in the water.

We aimed to cover three different survey sites per day, spending one hour on each site. As we we were snorkeling along the reef, we recorded all the turtles and other mega fauna we encountered.

Some of the survey sites felt a little overwhelming at times. We could barely keep up taking ID-shots of all of the individual turtles and recording their size and behaviour! We also encountered loads of stingrays and reef sharks, countless fish and even a few manta rays.

Sadly, marine life was not the only thing we encountered during our days out on the water. We found 8 ghost nets floating in the ocean, caught on the reef or washed up on the beach. Luckily, no turtles were found entangled in these old fishing nets.

ORP's expedition volunteers with Shameel on the boat
Volunteers Mark, Laura and Shawn on the expedition boat with ORP’s Shameel

We spent 16 days on and in the water, which was definitely everyone’s favourite part of the expedition. Being out all day on a traditional dhoni – little can beat it if you love the ocean.

Education and Outreach

ORP's Shameel teaches turtles at a school in Kelaa, Maldives
Shameel teaching turtles to school children at Kelaa

One of the most important parts of our work at the Olive Ridley Project is to spread the message about sea turtle conservation and the issue of marine debris, specifically ghost nets. During our expedition in Haa Alif, we visited two different schools and conducted a total of four educational sessions with 192 children between the age of 7 and 16. We taught them about the importance of sea turtles to the ocean and the many threats they face today. We explained our work and played turtle themed games to encourage everyone to want to help protect the sea turtles of the Maldives.

Beach cleanup at Kelaa Island Maldives
Beach cleanup at Kelaa

Our local partners IDEAS arranged a big beach clean-up on the island as part of our sessions. We had a huge turn out with many people coming together to help. We collected lots of rubbish from the beach. This, in turn, could help save turtles by taking away the chance of entanglement or ingestion of marine debris.

Wrapping Up – Data Analysis

Hawksbill turtle on the reef in Haa Alif Atoll Maldives
Hawksbill turtle on the reef in Haa Alif Atoll

After four weeks of in-water surveying, beach clean-ups, nesting surveys, school education sessions and of course time off from ‘work’, it was time to say goodbye. But not without determining the success of our expedition, of course!

  • We surveyed a total of 26 different reefs in Haa Alif Atoll
  • During 40 one-hour surveys we recorded a total of 157 turtle sighting
  • We added 58 new hawksbills and nine new greens to our national ID database, with many more to follow during the next expedition.

Besides turtles, we saw 38 reef sharks and 67 rays (including a few manta rays). We were also lucky to encounter dolphins 22 times throughout our time on the boat and sometimes even in the water!

Time to Say Goodbye

ORP's sea turtle reseach expedition team ready to leave Kelaa
Time to say goodbye

It is no surprise that we all felt a little down when it was time to leave our island paradise. Everyone tried to soak up the last rays of the sun before we finally had to gather our things and pack for the journey home.

We met on the jetty where the boat was patiently waiting to take us to Hanimadhoo airport. The team of Summer Home Kelaa, the guesthouse we stayed in, ORP’s partners IDEAS, and our amazing boat crew all came to say goodbye. We can’t thank them enough and we are grateful for the time we got to spend with everyone involved.

We had an amazing time which left us all inspired to do more for our oceans and spread the message about sea turtle conservation further.